How to Get a Private Pilot License
Many people dream of becoming pilots, and it’s an achievable goal for nearly anyone. Getting your pilot license takes a lot of studying and hard work, but the rewards are bountiful.
With your private license, you can fly! You can fly your own plane or rent a plane. Imagine taking a flight for a weekend getaway, or just dinner in the next town.
Those who have been bitten by the flying bug need no further convincing. If you’ve ever wondered how to get a private pilot license, read on to learn more.
What is a Private Pilot Certificate?
The private pilot certificate is the FAA license that allows you to fly airplanes for fun. You can’t get a job flying with a private pilot license, but you can rent or buy a plane and go anywhere you like.
It’s one of the most basic licenses, so for pilots looking to become professional aviators, the private pilot is just the first stepping stone. Plenty of pilots very happily operate as private pilots, and never want or need a commercial license.
Is a Private Pilot License Worth It?
All pilot licenses are expensive, so you may be wondering what use the private certificate would have for you.
If you’re comparing it with the less expensive and less time-consuming sport pilot license, the private offers you more privileges. It allows you to fly bigger, faster planes on longer trips away from home. Plus, it allows you to fly at night, or internationally.
If you’re looking to make a career as a pilot, you’ll need to make the private pilot license your first step. To get a commercial pilot certificate, you must first possess a private.
If you just want to go flying to have some fun, then it’s a great way to do that too. The pilot certificate itself never expires, but you must keep it current.
That means flying with an instructor every couple of years and logging a few hours if you want to carry passengers. You do not need to use your license, but if you want to start using it again after a period of inactivity, you must get a flight review from an instructor.
What are the Requirements to get a Private Pilot License?
The requirements are laid out in the Federal Aviation Regulations. You must be 17 years old or older and read, speak, write, and understand English. You must hold a student pilot certificate available from the FAA or an examiner or a sport pilot certificate.
There is bookwork to learn and a written exam to pass. There are also a minimum amount of flight hours you must log with your flight instructor. Specifically, you need to log a minimum of 40 hours of flight training, possibly a few less if you’re training at a Part 141 flight school. These 40 hours contain at least 20 hours of flight instruction and 10 hours of solo training. There are specific requirements for solo cross countries and nighttime flights, as well.
Once you have met all of these requirements, you take a practical exam that consists of both an oral question and answer session and a flight check. If you pass both, you have earned a private pilot license.
What Does Private Pilot Training Look Like?
Flight training is done one-on-one with a flight instructor. The typical flight lesson involves getting to the flight school early to check the weather and preflight the airplane.
You typically meet with your instructor for a few minutes to review your homework and see if you are ready for the flight. During the flight, you will practice maneuvers or scenarios that help you understand how to better fly the plane.
Sometimes, you work on a particular skill like landings. Other times, you work on an entire set of skills, like navigating to a new airport.
Once the flight is over, you park the plane and debrief with your instructor. You review your performance and discuss the things that went well—and the things that went not-so-well. From this, you put together a plan for next time.
Most flight lessons are done in two-hour flight blocks, but you can customize your training any way you like. This one-on-one instructor time is often combined with a ground school course in a classroom, where you learn the book-knowledge you need to pass the exams.
How to Get a Private Pilot License
There are two distinct parts to pilot training. Most students and many flight instructors conduct these two items separately, but they are more connected than you might think.
The first part of training is commonly called ground school. This is where you get the book knowledge. We’ll look at the tests you have to take to get the pilot license in a bit, but for now, know that there’s a lot to learn.
Many students have little experience in aviation before they set out to get their license. That means everything is new.
The exact knowledge areas that you learn about in ground school are listed in FAR Part 61. These are the areas that the FAA will test you on during the written exam.
- The Federal Aviation Regulations that relate to private pilots
- Accident reporting requirements
- FAA publications like the Aeronautical Information Manual and advisory circulars
- Charts, and navigation using pilotage, dead reckoning, and navigation systems
- Radio communications
- Weather theory and reports and forecasts
- Safe operating procedures
- Takeoff and climb performance
- Weight and balance computiations
- Aerodynamics, engines, and systems
- Stalls, spins, and recovery techniques
- Aeronautical decision making
- Preflight actions to take
Some students complete ground school and the written exam before they even begin flying, while others fly while also taking ground school.
If you are interested in flying but want to learn more, just taking the ground school class is a great way to get an introduction and learn a lot about aviation.
It’s important to note that all of the knowledge areas are important to your flying.
The bookwork you learn for your pilot license is valuable, and you will use the information again. You will build on this knowledge base as you fly, and you will need to know things from ground school to pass your check ride.
Private Pilot Flight Training
The flight training portion of your pilot license course is completely individualized. You train one-on-one with your flight instructor. At some schools, you might fly with any flight instructor, but in most places, you work with only one person.
FAR Part 61 lays out the flight proficiency requirements you need to meet for getting your private certificate in a single-engine airplane.
- Preflight preparation and procedures
- Airport operations
- Takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds
- Performance and Ground reference maneuvers
- Slow flight and stalls
- Basic instrument maneuvers
- Emergency operations
- Night operations
- Postflight procedures
As was the case with the ground school requirements, this list only provides a very basic glimpse at everything you must learn. These are the chapter titles. Each one of these headings represents numerous maneuvers or tasks you need to know how to perform.
Flight training is laid out in a detailed curriculum that you follow with your flight instructor’s guidance. You begin by learning the basics of operating an airplane.
As you get better, you build on your knowledge until you can conduct an entire flight with little or no help from your instructor. Once you’ve convinced your instructor that you can do it on your own, they let you take the plane up alone for some solo flying.
After you’ve soloed, you begin learning more about navigation and flying cross countries. For the purposes of flight training, a “cross-country flight” is one to an airport more than 50 miles away. You conduct several of these longer flights with your instructor, and when they feel you’ve gotten the hang of it, they let you do a few alone.
As you follow your training curriculum, you are meeting other regulatory requirements.
The FARs lay out the specific number of flight training, solo, cross-country, solo cross-country, and night flying hours you must complete to be eligible for the license.
The last phase of your training is getting ready for that check ride. At this point, you’ve learned about all of the flight proficiency areas, and you have experience in them all.
All that is left to do is practice taking the test. On check ride day, nothing is new. You will have practiced everything with your flight instructor several times, so the check ride is a piece of cake.
What Tests Do you Have to Pass to Get your Private Pilot Certificate?
In total, you must pass three FAA exams to get your private pilot license, though two of those are combined into one event.
The first exam you must pass is commonly called the written exam, but the FAA regulations refer to it as the “aeronautical knowledge exam.” This is where all your ground school knowledge and classes pay off. You must get 70 percent or more of the questions correct. The test is a multiple-choice exam with 60 questions, and you are given 150 minutes to take the test.
The written exam is given at FAA-designated proctored testing centers. You can find them listed on the FAA’s website. You’ll also find sample exams and information about the tests there. Taking the time to effectively prepare for your written exams is key to passing on the first attempt.
To take the knowledge exam, you must have the endorsement of the flight or ground instructor who prepared you for the exam. After the exam is over, you need to sit down with your instructor to review the knowledge areas you missed. You’ll likely be asked about them later on.
The written exam results are good for 24 months. So you must take your check ride to get your license within two years, or else you’ll have to repeat the written exam.
Practical Exam or Check Ride
Once you have completed your training and your flight instructor has found that you’re ready for the check ride, they will endorse your logbook and call an examiner. The “check ride” is known in FAA circles as the practical pilot exam, and it consists of two parts. First, you must pass an oral examination, then you move on to the airplane and show them how well you can fly.
FAA employees give some FAA practical exams, but this is rare. More often than not, check rides are given by DPEs, or Designated Pilot Examiners. These are individuals from the aviation community with decades of flying experience who have earned the privilege to give check rides.
The items you are tested on are outlined thoroughly in the Airman Certification Standards (ACS). This document is used by your flight instructor to get you ready and your examiner on check ride day. It lays out the knowledge you need to have, the maneuvers you need to perform, and the completion standards. There are no surprises on check ride day since everyone is using the same book.
What Are The Restrictions on a Private Pilot?
The private pilot certificate has many privileges for those who have earned one. There are no limits on where or when they can fly. In essence, they can hop in a plane and depart on a trip across the country with no further training. They can operate at any public airport, regardless of size, and in almost every type of airspace.
But there are some significant limitations and restrictions to understand. The first restrictions involve the word “private.” Private pilots fly for themselves; they are not professional pilots, and they cannot be paid for their flying or to take people flying.
Secondly, private pilots are limited to flying in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions, which means they can only fly in good weather. They cannot go inside of clouds, and if the visibility is low, they must stay on the ground. VFR flying requires being able to see outside, to see visual references and landmarks. If you want to fly in low visibility, you need to get an instrument rating.
Common Questions About a Private Pilot License
What is the Difference Between a Private Pilot and a Sport Pilot?
The sport pilot certificate was created to provide a less expensive option for those looking to fly. It’s a great place to start, but it has some limitations. Sport pilots are not allowed to fly at night or to fly on long cross countries. They are also limited to slow-flying, low-powered, two-seat aircraft.
There are many neat Light-Sport Aircraft, and getting the license is faster and cheaper than getting a private license. But sport pilots are generally folks who fly for fun around their home airports. If you’re looking to fly four-seater planes (or bigger), or you want to head out on long cross-country flights, then the private pilot certificate is the one for you. Also, if you’d eventually like to get an instrument rating or commercial license, you should start with the private.
Can I Get a Job With a Private Pilot License?
You can get any job you want with a private pilot license, but you cannot get paid for your services as a pilot. To be a professional, paid pilot, you must possess a commercial pilot certificate.
There are certain times when a pilot certificate comes in handy in other professions, however. If you’re a business person and have a meeting in another town, why not rent a plane and fly? If your company reimburses you for driving your car, you can get reimbursed for flying too.
What Comes After a Private Pilot License?
Private pilots are free to rent or buy aircraft and fly as much as they like. If they want to fly different aircraft types, they always need more training before they’re allowed to fly them solo. Some training requirements are spelled out in the Federal Aviation Regulations, while others are required by insurance companies and FBOs.
Should you want to continue with flight school, the next big stepping stone is the instrument rating. This is an add-on to your private pilot certificate that allows you to operate on an IFR flight plan, like the airlines do, and to operate in weather that is less than those allowed under VFR, which you must adhere to as a private pilot.
The instrument rating course is of similar cost and scope as the private pilot course. There is a written exam and an FAA check ride you must train for.
You learn how to handle the plane solely by reference to the instruments in every possible situation, and you learn to navigate safely in the National Airspace System from the moment your wheels leave the runway until the moment they touch down, all without looking out the window.
How Far Can a Private Pilot Fly?
There is no limit on how far you can fly, other than your plane’s endurance and range limits.
Even then, you just need to stop somewhere and fill up! If you are renting a plane, you have to pay for the time you have it, and that usually rules out flying around the world.
The FAA private license is recognized by ICAO and other nations, meaning that you can operate an aircraft with the same or similar rules as what you are used to in most places.
Can Private Pilots Fly at Night?
A private pilot can fly at night in the United States. Many other countries, however, require an instrument rating to fly after sunset.
You complete at least three hours of night flying to get your license, including a cross country flight. Flying at night is an incredible experience, but it’s essential to keep up your night-flying skills.
After dark, all pilots must have made three takeoffs and three full-stop landings in the last 90 days to carry passengers.